‘There’s a stigma about mental health conditions that really should not be there,’ Dr. Michael Freeman told us emphatically in speaking about entrepreneurs. Based in San Francisco and lead author of the research paper Are Entrepreneurs ‘Touched with Fire’?, Freeman has a pretty good handle on the entrepreneurial wellness landscape. So is it possible that despite it being the 21st Century; despite the high-profile suicides, from Aaron Swartz to the more recent deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain; despite all of the talk; there is still a stigma, a culture of silence? Yes. This is not just Freeman’s view. Time and time again we’ve heard this from entrepreneurs – dozens upon dozens of entrepreneurs across the spectrum of startup stages and verticals! – who are grinding it out in the trenches. Fortunately, many are working to break through the stigma and to stay emotionally healthy.
Wethos co-founder Rachel Renock is a great example of someone speaking with clarity on the topic and taking action. Here’s what she told us: ‘I think a reason that this topic that you’re talking about is so important as it pertains to tech is that it’s very difficult to get tech people to admit when things aren’t good. Most founders or investors don’t want anyone else knowing that actually behind the smoke screen it’s a s*** show. In tech you’re constantly encouraged to paint a picture of success and positivity.’ And it’s not just tech, that’s for sure.
Some quick context on Renock. A 2013 graduate of Syracuse University, in 2016 she co-founded and became CEO of Wethos, a platform that connects nonprofits with skilled professionals willing to work at a discount for missions they believe in. In 2017, the company closed a first round of VC money. Pushing hard on all fronts, Renock has also been an activist supporting the LGBT community and women in tech. Point is, she thinks deeply about this stuff.
‘There’s this whole mechanism that teaches people that things are an overnight success,’ Renock pointed out. ‘Like Snapchat was an overnight success. Like Facebook was an overnight success. And nobody wants to talk too much about the challenges because you don’t want to scare off potential investors, or potential employees, and so on and so forth. So there ends up being this culture of silence.’
You just want to yell, This ain’t the Mafia with its Law of Omerta, the Code of Silence!
The Need For A Safe Environment To Talk Candidly
A great step forward, according Renock, would simply be creating a safe environment for honest talk: ‘In terms of the mental health thing, for me, the biggest step that tech really needs to make is creating a safe environment for founders and entrepreneurs to speak candidly about their challenges. Because if no one talks about challenges, then you feel like you’re the only one struggling and then you feel incredibly isolated and alone when in reality many, many people dealt with it in the past or are currently dealing with the same problems. I’m looking for people to open up about their challenges and not feel ashamed about them.’ When you bury the s*** show, feel ashamed, and deepen your isolation, it’s all too easy to spiral into a very dark place.
On the surface, this notion of a lonely entrepreneur might seem somewhat counterintuitive to outsiders because the general view is that social capital and networks are critical to us. But we’re talking about a visceral loneliness that results from an absence of good friends you can lean on and confide in. Take Renock. By all accounts she’s involved, has a network, seems to have a good relationship with her parents, but has felt and still feels a certain alienation at times. To begin, she had no friends who had taken the entrepreneurial plunge. ‘So it did become a bit alienating,’ she explained, ‘and it was hard to vent or have conversations with my friends because they weren’t anywhere close to doing what we were doing. It was hard to empathize with what was going on with us, so I definitely leaned on my co-founders more in that sense. And it was definitely isolating to not be aware of anyone else who was in the same position as we were.
‘In terms of my friendships and personal relationships, they absolutely have suffered,’ Renock continued. ‘I think in the first year of having a totally different schedule and totally different lifestyle honestly than the rest of my friends, caused me to be very distant. I was bad. And I had no money either, so it’s not like I could go out to brunch with everybody every weekend. Or I could take someone out to dinner. I was struggling to get by so that really restrained my ability to do anything. It caused me to sort of isolate myself from a lot of my friends.’
The Echo Chamber And Imposter Syndrome
You can end up in an echo chamber left with just your own voice, when you really want someone to bounce ideas off of or to confide in or to validate what you’re doing. Renock was forthright about this challenge: ‘I struggle with turning my internal dialogue off. I think for my own mental health, reigning in my inner voice and that constant dialogue is critical.’ It can be draining and make sleep elusive. She wakes up many times every night. Sleep was always a struggle but more so now with the added pressure of running an early stage startup.
That echo chamber can lead to self-doubt if you let that inner voice chip away at your confidence. In turn this can lead to Imposter Syndrome, a psychological state in which you question your accomplishments and have this irrational fear of being uncovered as a fraud. ‘I struggle a lot, and still do, with imposter syndrome,’ Renock explained. ‘I think that is one of the most challenging and damaging states of mind an entrepreneur can have. For the first two months after we closed on the money I was sort of in awe, I felt a little stunned still by the gravity of the situation. And there is a lot of added pressure. We do have goals we have to meet, we do have to get to the next round.’
Therapy, Journaling And Rebuilding Friendships
To beat back the self-doubt and the pressure, Renock relies on candid conversations with her two co-founders, therapy, journaling and rebuilding those neglected friendships. ‘I just kind of journal a lot to get my thoughts down on paper. I go to therapy every other week. I’ve had times when my bank account is so empty and I scraped together the last amount of cash just to go to therapy again just to help with my mental health and my state of mind because it is a lot of pressure. It’s hard and I am fairly young. I write a lot down just to get it out. I had a rough day today so I’ll journal a little bit tonight.’ The writing helps her put things in perspective. It’s about reflection. ‘Everything happens so fast and things change so quickly, we don’t even have time to really process it, so I think writing helps me process a lot.’
One of Renock’s resolutions is to rebuild some of her friendships, to spend more time and energy on relationships. But what about follow through? ‘It’s a matter of being committed,’ she said. For example, if she puts a business meeting on a calendar, she will be there. She doesn’t like shifting things around, being flaky. ‘I want to apply that to my personal life,’ she said. ‘I want to make sure I’m prioritizing people in my life as much as I am the company, which is really, really hard because we’re at such an early stage and we have so much to do. Don’t bail on plans. If you’re going to make a dinner date or drink date, show up. Even if you’re tired, even if you want to go home, just be as committed to that as you are to the company. I’m hoping that that small shift in and of itself will help.’
Renock is taking action both to strengthen emotional connections and to break the culture of silence in her corner of New York City, but it’s going to take a concerted effort to create that safe environment for candid talk on a bigger scale. As we know, it’s worth it because there’s no question silence can lead to bad things.
This piece by ‘Forbes’. was first seen on